A Black-and-White Aleph: The Curious Addiction of the Postcard Collector

June 6, 2012 | 4 5 min read

The rooms on the second floor of the New Yorker Hotel, which hosted the 17th annual meeting of the Metropolitan Postcard Club last month, had the air of an exceptionally quiet casino. The ceilings were high, the decorations bland, the carpets wall-to-wall, and at every table, postcard fanciers sat sifting through stacks of cards as tirelessly as slots addicts. None of the tourists in the lobby ventured upstairs to browse the postcard tables. The convention offered little to pique a visitor’s curiosity. The postcard sellers — retirees, proprietors of upstate antique stores, freelance dealers in ephemera — were almost all slow-moving, bespectacled, and gray-haired, and their wares were too small to be worth looking at from farther than a foot or two away.

But for those of us who had come to the hotel for the convention, the sight of all those tables laid out with postcards provoked an almost painful greed. Postcard collections can be vast, monumental. The cards lined up in boxes and displayed on shelves at the various stands — often numbering easily into the thousands — represented in most cases only a small fraction of each seller’s total inventory. Joan Kay, the head of the club, recently donated 2,000 cards from her collection to a museum. The rows of cards from a store called The Cartophilians featured tabs for most of the countries on earth, which were then sometimes broken down further into subcategories: Norway –- landscapes; Norway –- people types, etc. One dealer from Boston told me that he had at least 70,000 cards at home — “hand-selected, premium stuff.”

I asked a few sellers what they liked so much about postcards.

“Well,” said Ove Braskerud, owner of the Cartophilians stand, “my family’s from Scandinavia. So I started collecting cards from there. And then that branched out to other places. So now our specialty is world postcards.”

“My ex-husband got me into collecting,” said Kay, “and after we split up, I kept up the hobby.”

No answers at all. What inspires these collections? Collecting combines the ratlike pleasure of compulsive acquisition with the godlike pleasure of presiding over one’s own little world; and, to a certain extent, the enjoyment of expanding and organizing this world has little to do with the particular objects one collects. Some convention-goers’ interest in postcards seemed to be limited to the opportunity it gave them to hunt and categorize. They collected cards according to certain narrow themes, which they pursued single-mindedly: postcards of Ithaca, N.Y.; clowns; animals; general stores; early 20th-century strongmen; people dressed as fruit. One seller claimed he’d met a man who collected only postcards of left-handed harpists.

But for most postcard collectors, the appeal is at least partly aesthetic. Everyone has their favorite kind of card, and there were offerings at the convention to suit every possible taste: celebrity and pin-up girl cards; brightly colored postcards from the ’30s and ’40s printed on linen-textured stock; calling cards from the 1890s; racist cartoon cards; delicate cyanotype postcards printed in all blue ink; vintage anti-semitic cards from Bavaria; official portraits of seemingly every tourist attraction on earth.

My own favorites are called Real Photo postcards. As their name implies, they are not, like most other postcards, mass-produced lithographs, but real photos, printed in a darkroom directly onto the card. They were made by the Kodak No 3A Folding Pocket Camera or one of its copycats, which were designed to produce a post-card sized image. The real-photo postcard craze started after 1903, when the 3A was put on the market, and lasted into the ’30s. Millions of different cards were printed. Most of the pictures are portraits — wedding, family, baby — or record important events — fires, floods, parades — but there’s a huge range of subject matter, from saloons to still lifes and lynchings. People used them as souvenirs, keepsakes, and a form of communication in a country where transportation was still slow and the telephone not yet in wide usage.

Some vendors at the convention had only a few dozen Real Photo cards, while others had whole tables full of them. If you had never seen these pictures before and happened to wander into the convention and look through a stack of them, you would probably be struck first by their age. The men wear round-tipped detachable collars and the women wear modest dresses that expose only their hands and the tops of their necks. Pictures taken outside might feature a horse-drawn carriage or a stately house on a street made of packed dirt. No one seems to know how to pose for a photo. Subjects don’t thrust their faces at the camera but instead are caught in the act of trying to hold perfectly still for the long exposure. More casual pictures are marred by blurs and out-of-focus objects. These flaws give the century-old images a startling candor and immediacy. On the back, they say “post card,” and “place stamp here,” and there’s something electrifying about the contrast between the up-to-date blandness of the postcard back and the vividness and idiosyncrasy of the image on the front.

At this point, you might sit down and start leafing through the stack, which is like watching a slideshow of scenes from an earlier America. The lead sled dog on the snowy streets of an Alaskan town looks at the camera as if posing. A man in a bowler hat stands in front of a giant redwood. Six brothers and sisters, arranged by height, pose for a group shot, the girls in focus, the boys blurry, and every child looking to their right and laughing at the antics of some invisible person — all but the oldest daughter, who looks at the camera, smiling against her will.

In Borges’ great story “The Aleph,” the narrator meets a gentleman from Buenos Aires who has discovered beneath a stair in his cellar a portal that allows the viewer a sight of the entire world, all at once. “From the floor,” the gentleman says, “you must focus your eyes on the nineteenth step…Total darkness, total immobility, and a certain ocular adjustment will also be necessary.” The narrator follows the instructions, and suddenly:

I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid… I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand…

As you look through one pile of Real Photo postcards after another, you might just experience a dim and distant version of this epiphany. Everything seems to be included. A fight between two sailors in 1909. Someone’s log cabin in a patch of woods in Michigan (dubbed “The Nutshell.”) Farmers slaughtering rabbits in a pen in Kansas in 1906. A baby posed on a fur rug like a bee in a flower. It’s a murky and haphazard Aleph, a view into a world much smaller and less vibrant than Borges’ and in which everyone visible is now dead. A limited Aleph — but, like the set of all prime numbers, still infinite. To possess for a while this all-seeing eye is the dream of fiction. Are these postcards art? No: they’re literature — the scattered pages of an enormous novel.

On the convention floor, a dealer had returned from McDonald’s, and the smell of french fries roused a few people to lift their heads. In a moment they’d returned to their cards. Since there was not much money at stake, but mostly images — images greedily viewed, in great quantities — the best analogy may not be to gambling after all, but to a different vice. Like pornography, these pictures derive their power from what they lack: the viewer’s presence in the scene. But old postcards have no “real thing” for which they serve as a substitute. They tempt the viewer with the prospect of satisfying not a physical urge but an impossible one: the urge to live entirely in the imagination, inside a world that combines the novelty and excitement of reality with the ease and safety of solitude.

Some of us are more susceptible to this fantasy than others. The New Yorker Hotel has 40 stories, and in many of the rooms, travelers from all over the world were at that moment enjoying the panoramic views out the window. Meanwhile, a few dozen of us at the postcard convention were sitting in front of tiny windows, looking in.

Images courtesy of the author’s collection.

lives in Brooklyn and blogs here.